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Bare-chested footballer Cousins and well-dressed thief Pratt

Ben CousinsNovember 2007 has been an interesting month for the Australian Football League. A player who has not been found guilty of any illegal activity has been suspended for 12 months for bringing the game into disrepute. On the other hand, no action has been taken against a chairman of a club who admitted and was found guilty of the most serious price fixing case ever heard under the Trade Practices Act 1974.

The story of the player is well known. In mid-October 2007, Ben Cousins, a star player of the West Coast Eagles, was arrested and charged for the alleged possession of prohibited recreational drugs and for refusing to submit to a drug test. We were regaled with television footage of him bare chested, being led away by police. Cousins was subsequently sacked by the Eagles.

The day after his sacking, the police dropped the charge of possessing prohibited drugs. They subsequently dropped the second charge of refusing to take a drug test on a technicality, and Cousins received compensation from the police for his 'wrongful' arrest.

Cousins travelled to Los Angeles to undergo a program of drug rehabilitation. It was reported that he had gone on a five-day cocaine bender, which resulted in his hospitalisation. He returned to Australia in early November.

The AFL Commission subsequently announced that Cousins had been charged with bringing the game into disrepute. A hearing was scheduled for 19 November. Even though police had dropped their charges against him, the AFL Commission suspended Cousins from playing in the AFL for 12 months. Moreover, any potential reinstatement at the end of this period was dependent on proof of rehabilitation.

Andrew Demetriou, the AFL's CEO, said if a player 'wasn't appreciative of the privilege [and] opportunities' of being associated with the league, and 'if you're willing to transgress or behave in a manner that is going to bring disrepute to our game, the Commission will have no hesitation in dealing with it'.

But the AFL, it seems, has a double standard when it comes to its treatment of players and club executives. At approximately the same time as the Commission announced its charge against Cousins, the Federal Court of Australia handed down a decision concerning a price fixing by Amcor and Visy. They controlled more that 90 per cent of the estimated $1.8 to $2 billion per annum market in Australia.

The head of Visy is Richard Pratt, one of Australia's richest men, with a fortune estimated at $5 billion. He is also president of the Carlton Football Club. He joined the Carlton board in February 2007 and helped turn the club around from a loss of $3.2 million to a profit of $3 million.

The parties involved in this case admitted their guilt. Justice Heerey fined Visy $36 million and two operatives of the company a combined total of $2 million. He said 'this must be, by far, the most serious cartel case to come before the court in the 30-plus years in which price fixing has been precluded by statute ... There cannot be any doubt that Mr Pratt also knew that the cartel, to which he gave his approval, and in which he admitted to being knowingly concerned was seriously unlawful.'

It has been estimated that losses from the operation of this cartel are in the order of $700 million.

Graeme Samuel, the chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission Samuel, said 'cartels are theft — usually by well dressed thieves'. He advocated jail terms for those convicted of price fixing: 'Nothing', he said, 'concentrates the mind of an executive contemplating creating or participating in a cartel more than the prospect of a criminal conviction or a stretch in jail.'

Yet Carlton has sought to distinguish Richard Pratt's involvement with the club from the adverse findings of the Federal Court. CEO Greg Swann said this matter 'relates to issues that took place and ended well before Richard was invited to join the Carlton Board'. Such a stance has a hollow ring. The fact that Pratt had obtained income from participating in a price fixing cartel provided him with the wherewithal to be generous to Carlton.

The AFL is very conscious of its image and the behaviour of those that are part of its family. Andrew Demetriou said the AFL would not hesitate to take action in dealing with threats to its reputation. Consequently the league has barred Cousins from playing in the AFL for a year, despite the fact he has not been convicted of any wrongdoing.

Yet the AFL has taken no action with respect to the conviction of Richard Pratt, who has been found guilty of participating in the most egregious example of price fixing since the passage of the Trade Practices Act 1974. How can the latter example be said to not diminish or tarnishes the reputation of the game?

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the AFL is operating a double standard in its different responses to the bare-chested footballer and the well-dressed thief.

Braham DabscheckBraham Dabscheck taught industrial relations at the University of New South Wales for 33 years. He has acted as a consultant or advisory board member to various player and sports associations in Australia, and has written extensively on the economic and legal aspects of sports.





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Existing comments

Ben Cousins have been a very good player so I think they should give him another chance. I love Ben Cousins he is the best player I have ever seen.

sylvie | 29 November 2007  

Thank you Braham for a couple of important articles. The AFL is, of course, not alone in selecting certain types of behaviour as 'beyond the pale' while tolerating other, at least equally destructive, behaviour. Churches, politicians, government, community groups and individuals have followed the same pattern. And most seem to have demonising as a common thread.

One aspect of demonising is that it dehumanises people; they are no longer a mixture of good and bad, but they become all bad and therefore something less than human. We saw it with the last government's approach to refugees and asylum seekers, with extremist 'right-to-life' groups, with wartime propaganda aimed at dehumanising the enemy, with any of the 'us and them' situations. And while demonising is ultimately destructive not only of the object but also of the perpetrator, it has a long history of use within both secular and religious society.

So what is the solution?

Warwick | 30 November 2007  

Intersetingly Rugby League had its own drug drama with Andrew Johns. In his interview he acknowledged his family knew about his 10yrs of drug taking. Yet his Brother Matthew Johns still works for channel 9 and has not been brought into account. Double standards?

Nick | 10 December 2007  

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